Yasunao Tone (b. 1935) studied literature at the national Chiba University in Japan and wrote his graduate thesis on Dada and Surrealism. In 1960 he was a founding member of the improvisational music unit Group Ongaku at a time when the Japanese avant garde was waging a war against art, commercialism and the Americanisation of culture. The artists involved in this protest took part in an institutional critique of the arts using forms of Intermedia, Happenings and Conceptualism that questioned the very notions of art and creativity. Tone was at the centre of this movement as a musician, composer, writer and collaborator.
The Cagean/Fluxus influence of composer/performer Toshi Ichiyanagi was significant to Tone's development. Ichiyanagi returned to Tokyo from the US in the summer of 1961 to organise Japanese musicians for a Tokyo based Fluxus group and encouraged Tone in his method of composition. The musicians involved in Group Ongaku formed part of what was later called Tokyo Fluxus. Other members of the Fluxus movement, including Yoko Ono, spent time in Tokyo in the early 1960s and it was during this period that the Japanese Fluxus artists began to deliver performances and produce publications. For Tone, this included having Anagram for Strings performed in the Fluxus Festival in Copenhagen and other tape music played in various Fluxus festivals in Paris, Dusseldorf and Wiesbaden in 1962. In 1965 Tone co-organised "Fluxus Week, A Tokyo Fluxus festival," with Toshi Ichiyanagi and Kuniharu Akiyama. He also made use of computer technology from very early on, co-organizing Biocode Process in 1966, Japan's first computer art festival.
Throughout the 1960s Tone was involved in a range of activities encompassing composition, performance, event based work, theatre, dance, and criticism. He arrived in New York in 1972 and continues to be active in the arts scene there. Whilst in the USA he has composed a number of pieces utilising indeterminate techniques for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company including Geography and Music that was performed with the dance work Roadrunner .
Tone's work since the 1960s has focused on the exploration of various methods of composition that introduce random events and indeterminate compositional techniques. He has written scores asking performers to: draw a line which intersects with various circles, on the intersection the performer is then asked to play different downward glissandos (Anagram for Strings , 1962); place an acetate sheet with lines over a topographical map and work out various heights, angles, and positions from which to drop objects from a ladder onto the strings of a piano (Geodesy for Piano ,1962) or fix photosensitive detectors to a wall and project characters and photographs onto the wall, the detectors are in turn connected to oscillators (Molecular Music , 1983). These works point to an interest in the boundaries of systems and their various outcomes and how these can be used to create compositions.
In 1984 Tone came across a method that could be used to cause discrepancy in the playback of the then very new CD technology through overriding the error correction system of the CD player, this discovery lead to his 'wounded CD' performance practice:
"I called my audiophile friend who owned a Swiss-made CD player and asked about it. It was a simpler method than I suspected. I bought a copy of Debussy's Preludes and brought it to my friend's place. By his engineer friend's suggestion we simply made many pinholes on bits of Scotch tape and stuck it on the bottom of a CD. I had many trials and errors. I was pleased the result because the CD player behaved frantically and out of control. That was a perfect device for performance."
When Tone was first approached to release a CD of his music he believed that none of his pieces were appropriate due to the indeterminate nature of the compositions. His solution to this was to make a piece that could not be played live and was totally predicated on the CD format for its realisation. The resulting work Musica Iconologos was described by Craig Kendall as "one of the most extreme and original applications of the current digital recording medium." The piece was created from 187 images of Chinese characters and photographs which were scanned and run through an 'optical music recognition' program. The sound files produced were treated digitally, with no personal judgement used to exclude or repeat any of the audio. The outcome is extreme noise, the piece moving through the characters in brief bursts of digital audio. This fixed medium piece became a source for future 'wounded CD' performances through its prepared use in concert settings. The work is radically re-mixed as it stutters, skips and jams throughout the performance. The piece now holds the conditions that interests Tone in performance, that of indeterminacy and chance.
The technique of re-mixing and re-working his releases was also used in a work produced in 2000 entitled Wounded Man'yo 2/2000 . The work, which won him an Honorary Mention at the 2000 Prix Ars Electronica, is based on his CD-ROM Musica Simulacra and was made in similar fashion to Musica Iconologos . The software Projector was used to scan images formed by Tone to relate to the text Man'yo-shu. The text is a collection of some 4500 poems complied c.759 and is the oldest anthology of poetry from Japan. For Wounded Man'yo 2/2000 Tone recorded a number of CD-Rs from the original CD-ROM of Musica Simulacra . He then wounded the CD-R copies and used the prepared discs in performance. It is then the case that the final recordings have gone through many levels of indeterminacy.
Yasunao Tone continues to work at the cutting edge of sound, displaying a tireless desire to push boundaries, which is, if anything, increasing with age. He continues to perform internationally and collaborate on inspirational projects with the most significant names amongst the current generation of electronic sound practitioners - his most recent release, Palimpsest , is a collaboration with Florian Hecker on the Mego label.